As you stare at your newborn wondering if he/she looks more like you or your partner, you may be surprised that your bundle of joy is looking more like a carrot instead! Jaundice in newborn babies is very common (and not related to delayed cord clamping!) and, in most cases, easy to treat.
We know it can seem scary, so let’s unpack it. In this post you’ll find:
- What causes jaundice in newborn babies?
- What are the symptoms of jaundice in newborn babies?
- What are some natural remedies for jaundice in newborn babies?
- When are medical interventions necessary?
What is Jaundice in Newborn Babies?
Jaundice in newborn babies occurs when there is excess bilirubin—a yellow tinged component of red blood cells—in baby’s blood. This causes the skin, and sometimes the whites of the eyes, to appear yellow.
Bilirubin levels are naturally highest 3-5 days after birth, so it’s most common for jaundice to occur within 5 days of birth. Jaundice affects an estimated 60% of full-term babies and 80% of preterm babies, and it’s more commonly seen in breastfed infants.
What Causes Jaundice in Newborns?
In adults, jaundice is caused by an overtaxed and poorly functioning liver or gallbladder. Jaundice in newborn babies is similar—it typically occurs because the newborn liver is immature and not functioning at its peak.
Here are less common causes of jaundice in newborn babies:
- An infection.
- Baby’s blood is incompatible with the mother’s, causing a reaction.
- Problems with the digestive system.
- Internal bleeding from birth injuries like cephalohematoma.
- Liver malfunction or disease.
- Certain gene mutations, like Gilbert Syndrome.
Symptoms of Jaundice in Newborn Babies
Many babies develop mild cases of jaundice, and most clear up on their own as their livers starts to function. Newborns with mild jaundice will have a yellowish-orange tinge to their skin.
Symptoms of mild jaundice in newborn babies can also include:
- Pale stools (here’s what baby’s poop should look like)
- Dark urine
- Trouble feeding or sucking
Moderate to severe jaundice in newborn babies can cause some serious health issues and can include the following symptoms:
- Baby’s skin gets increasingly yellow
- The whites of the eyes are yellow
- The baby is lethargic or listless
- Has trouble eating
- Baby has lost more than 10% of his birth weight
- Jaundice lasts for 3 weeks or more
How to Check for Jaundice in Newborn Babies
Your healthcare provider will check for jaundice following birth (hospitals will check every 8 hours or so) and again at baby’s initial well visit a few days after birth. But you can monitor baby, too.
To check for mild jaundice, put your baby in natural lighting and press your finger firmly but gently on their forehead. If the indentation looks slightly yellow, then it’s probably jaundice.
Is It Fatal for Babies to Have Jaundice?
In most cases, jaundice in newborn babies disappears within 2 weeks and does not require medical care.
But it is necessary and important to monitor any baby with jaundice, since complications are possible.
Fatal complications are rare, but if severe jaundice in newborn babies is left untreated it can cause:
- Acute bilirubin encephalopathy: A build-up of bilirubin in the brain that causes fever, lethargy, excessive fussiness, trouble eating, and arching of the body or neck.
- Kernicterus (hyperbilirubinemia): A potentially fatal condition caused by acute bilirubin encephalopathy that causes brain swelling. If not fatal, it can lead to permanent brain damage.
If you suspect your baby has a serious care of jaundice, seek treatment immediately.
Other serious, but rare complications include deafness and cerebral palsy.
Can Vitamin K Cause Jaundice?
Since 1961, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended a vitamin K injection immediately after birth to prevent a rare, but dangerous bleeding disorder (VKDB) caused by low vitamin K levels in infants.
But some parents are skeptical. The injection contains 20,000 times the amount of vitamin K a baby is born with and 5,000 times the recommended daily amount. Since vitamin K is processed by the liver, which doesn’t begin to function fully until 3-4 days after birth, some parents worry it’s too much for baby’s immature system. (There has only been one reported case of shock from a vitamin K shot.)
There is also concern about the safety of the shot itself. The shot solution contains lots of yucky additives, like phenol, benzyl alcohol, propylene glycol, acetic acid, hydrochloric acid, lecithin, and castor oil. Even the preservative-free version includes agents like polysorbate 80, propylene glycol, sodium acetate anhydrous, and glacial acetic acid.
Natural alternatives to the vitamin K injection
Because VKDB can be very serious, it’s important to research your options, talk to your healthcare provider, and make a decision that you’re comfortable with.
Since it’s extremely rare for formula-fed babies to have VKDB, a supplement isn’t necessary. (Always talk to your doctor before making important medical decisions.)
For breastfed babies, you can look into an oral protocol with your doctor’s approval. Read more about that and other alternatives to routine newborn procedures here. The point is: You want to provide some type of protection for your baby—VKDB can be fatal, and is on the rise.
Natural Treatments for Jaundice in Newborn Babies
1. Feeding frequently
Feeding your baby frequently can help him kickstart his liver and process the excess red blood cells in his system. As a result, breastfed babies are at increased risk of developing jaundice. During the first few days, baby is receiving colostrum, a nutrient-dense “pre-milk” that is very concentrated and not very copious (only a few tablespoons will satiate a baby!). Compare that with several ounces of formula, you can see why breastfed babies are more at risk.
However, do your best to breastfeed your baby as frequently as possible (without forcing baby to eat!), as this will help her flush the excess bilirubin from her system. If you’re bottle feeding, just make sure baby is getting enough formula. (See this post for the healthiest formula options.)
The blue light spectrum found naturally in sunlight helps to break down excess bilirubin to help the body excrete it. Stripping baby down to his diaper and putting him in a sunny spot will do the trick. (Of course you’ll want to be mindful of baby getting too much sun or burning!). In moderate to severe cases, phototherapy—special lights that mimic sunlight to help dissolve excess bilirubin—may be necessary. Talk to your pediatrician.
3. Vitamin D
One study found that babies with jaundice had significantly lower levels of vitamin D compared to the non-jaundiced group. Breastfed moms can supplement with 6,400 IU of vitamin D, which will pass into her milk and boost baby’s levels (source). Placing baby in a sunny spot, as mentioned above, may also help vitamin D levels.
A meta-analysis found that probiotic supplementation in newborns helped to significantly improve jaundice symptoms. The probiotics decreased bilirubin levels that cause jaundice and helped the body clear out excess bilirubin. (Find the best probiotics for infants here.)
In one study, pregnant women who took 250 mg of magnesium daily for 6 weeks had babies with a 20.6% reduction in excess bilirubin—the red blood cells that can cause jaundice in newborn babies. Try adding these magnesium-rich foods to your diet if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
6. Barely Seed Flour
As odd as it may sound, researchers found that barley seed flour sifted over a baby’s skin along with light exposure improved jaundice in newborn babies. The barley flour helps decrease indirect bilirubin levels and functions as an antioxidant. This traditional Iranian remedy probably won’t be effective on its own, but it can boost the effects of light therapy.
When Phototherapy Might Be Necessary
When jaundice in newborn babies becomes more severe, and more intensive interventions are necessary, the most common treatment is phototherapy, where the jaundiced baby is placed under an artificial blue light. The light amplifies the effects of sunlight to help break up the bilirubin into molecules that are easily excreted from the body.
Risks of Phototherapy
Phototherapy is a common method of treatment for jaundice in newborn babies, and in the vast majority of cases, is without complications. But there are a few rare risks parents should be aware of:
Bronze Baby Syndrome is a rare complication that occurs as a result of phototherapy. Babies who develop this condition get a dark grayish brown discoloration to skin, urine, and serum. No treatment is necessary—it will slowly disappear once phototherapy is discontinued.
2. Purpuric light eruption
In rare cases, babies with cholestatic jaundice may develop blisters or lesions on their skin as a result of phototherapy.
How to Maximize Phototherapy Results and Safety
If your jaundiced baby needs phototherapy, there are ways to maximize the effectiveness and decrease side effects.
Use protective eyewear: It is standard practice for baby to wear protective eyewear during phototherapy, but something parents may want to confirm with their healthcare provider.
Massage: One study found that when phototherapy was combined with massage, bilirubin levels and frequency of bowel movements improved compared to the phototherapy only group.
Feed baby before and after: In addition to being a source of comfort for baby, there is evidence that breast milk contains antioxidants to help baby’s body defend itself from certain health conditions.
Barley See Flour: As mentioned above, dusting barley seed flour on baby’s skin before a phototherapy session can more efficiently decreases bilirubin levels.
What If Phototherapy Doesn’t Work?
Newborn babies who don’t respond well to phototherapy may have an underlying condition, like a urinary tract infection (UTI). In this case, the UTI will need treated in order for the jaundice to clear.
If other conditions are ruled out, your baby’s doctor may recommend an IV if phototherapy isn’t cutting it.
The need for blood transfusions or immunoglobulin, a protein in the blood that reduces antibody levels, is rare but may be recommended in severe cases.
A Note About Phototherapy
Jaundice in newborns can take new parents by surprise. It’s scary to see such a little baby’s skin turn yellow. Remember that jaundice in newborn babies is a treatable condition and generally without complications. Talk to your healthcare provider to come up with a treatment plan that’s right for your baby and make sure to give your newborn a few extra snuggles. Hang in there, mama! 😘
How About You?
Did your baby have jaundice? How long did it last? Share your story below.